Chef Matthew Kirkley of L20 - Photo Anjali Pinto.jpg

[Photographs: Anjali Pinto]

Chef Matthew Kirkley was born in Baltimore, Maryland, where he gained a deep love for seafood that he credits for his success today. He eschews land mammals for ocean life; the sea's greater biodiversity keeps sending him inspiration.

At his restaurant, L2O, Kirkley works with some of the freshest fish you'll find in Chicago, which he keeps pristine in custom-made tanks. Though his treatments of fish are simple, his tasting menus are anything but. Here's a look into the kitchen and people that produce those dishes.

Favorite Small Tools

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Thin knives mean better cuts of fish.

I do a lot of fish butchering on a day-to-day basis. Two of my knives are the stars—my Mac Filet knife and my Misono 440 slicer. The Mac has a more malleable metal than the blue steel that's often used in finer cutlery, so it's more flexible and quick to sharpen. It's important that your knife has some give when going around bones and running down filets.

The Misono 400 is a long slicer—it's thin with even more give. Bulky, wide-bladed knives tend to catch more, especially when you're dealing with softer tissue like fin fish. Thin knives matter for fish.

Item Worth Saving From a Kitchen Fire

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I'm not sure it would be possible to carry, but I'd try to get my fish tank out. It's the most important piece of equipment to me in our kitchen, the thing that helps us sustain life. We put in these two gigantic 100-gallon systems that mimic pretty accurately the English Channel and the Pacific. It was a big, custom design, a six-month labor of love project that keeps our fish so pristine. It was made by an architect, aquarium guys from Old Town Aquarium, a guy with a doctorate in crustaceans who works at the Shed Aquarium, steel cut down at a metal shop in the West Loop, and plexiglas from the aquarium. So it's not like I can just go buy another one.

In the Pacific side I keep clams and abalone, on the other in varying rotation there's anything you'll find in the Channel, like lobster or langoustines. It makes a huge difference when you're 900 miles away from the ocean like we are in Chicago.

Hometown Connection

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I'm from Baltimore, Maryland originally, so there are always traces of that in the kitchen. We use blue crabs that we ship in from the eastern shore of Maryland to make our canapĂ©, which is our play on a stock item in Baltimore—a potato chip with Old Bay. We take crabmeat and make it into a crab chip seasoned with Old Bay. There are a couple examples of Baltimore in the dessert menu, too.

Staying True to Classics

I enjoy finding new stuff in either traditional foods or commonplace things. If you look at our menu there's not necessarily any wacky ingredients. I find more creativity in looking at carrots or celery or green apple and finding something new to do with them, rather than looking for a new technique to be creative. We're not using micro-greens or any wacky Japanese fish. I try to stay away from the hang-ups of fine-dining at the moment. We just try to buy the best stuff that we can.

Indulgent Ingredients

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We're lucky that we don't put a lot of restraints on ourselves financially; I feel that way every day about the products that we're using. We use a hell of a lot of black truffles, caviars, and imported oils. We buy 20-pound wild turbot from an auction in Amsterdam, so I always feel pretty giddy holding a $600 fish. We definitely have a lot of stuff along that line; fresh langoustines flown in from Scotland that end up costing me six bucks a piece, abalone flown in overnight that are thirty-five dollars a piece. We definitely have our fair share of luxury ingredients.

As far as something you can get at home, we like cooking with V.E.P. Chartreuse, which you can find at decent liquor stores. I love the complexity of flavor and I think it works particularly well with fish. I put it on salmon and ocean trout and things of that nature. You can make compound butters out of it, or put it on raw fish and not cook the alcohol out of it so it marinades it. It's pretty versatile.

A Unique Kitchen Design

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The way we run our brigade is very different and the layout of the kitchen is very unique. I have a gigantic open pass as opposed to a traditional French range where you have two lines facing walls. The kitchen is an expansive open space with granite countertops, and we can all see what we're doing and help each other.

We have a combination of an old-school brigade system in conjunction with the specificity of the tasks needed to do a tasting menu—I have stations of two-cook pairs with one person cooking and one person plating instead of solo stations. It's rather specialized work, and most of the cooks are on their two-person team working on two or three dishes, tops, which give us a level of detail greater than one cook working on aspects of four or five dishes.

At the end of the day I look at my kitchen and, as it's where I spend 16 hours of my day almost every day, it's all really special to me—the product we bring in, the equipment that we use, the staff that I have. It's all really personal when you're providing 100% of the creative direction. There's not just one thing that makes it feel like home to me.

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